The opening sequence of The Dark Horse depicts Genesis Potini wandering through the rain muttering to himself, intercut with his older brother teaching him the game of chess when they were both children. He stops in a store with a few chessboards set up, and continues his frantic word salad as the shop owners look on nervously. Then, Genesis starts moving the pieces with a preternatural celerity, waxing poetic chess theory, comparing the relative qualities of the Sicilian defense and the Scotch game. The preamble continues until Genesis is discovered by his handler and whisked back to the mental hospital. The title flashes across the screen, and we understand the fundamental themes of The Dark Horse immediately: dealing with mental health, the importance of family and community, and the transformative power of the game of Chess.
Disney’s Queen of Katwe appears to follow the standard formula of sports movie: take an underdog (bonus points for a disadvantaged upbringing) and chart their rise to the top ranks until they overcome some snooty favorite. Mira Nair’s film distinguishes itself through peerless acting, a vibrant but patient setting, and consistent application of its chosen sport as thematic metaphor. The film focuses on a young, poor female chess prodigy from Uganda named Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga). Throughout the story, chess is used as a mechanism for improvement and a way to escape her situation. Ultimately, Queen of Katwe champions the intellect of individuals, and shows us a world where young girls and boys can apply that intellect to improve their lives.
The underdog is an established trope in the sports film, but it is rare that the underdog is celebrated for merely his effort. Most of these kinds of stories focus on an under-appreciated team or person punching way above their weight class and de-throning the champion in a show of heart and determination. But, there are iconic examples of this kind of story where the victory is not the focus of the protagonist. Instead, the thematic elements are born from the characters showing the courage to compete against titanic odds. Examples of this kind of film range from the original Rocky and Bad News Bears, to true-life versions like Cool Runnings. Dexter Fletcher’s Eddie the Eagle is most similar in both plot and theme to the Jamaican bobsled film from 1993, but flirts with approaching the subject with a too-heavy hand in critical moments. Continue reading ““Eddie the Eagle” Succeeds in Theme, But Hits Too-Familiar Story Points”
The boxing ring is an attractive setting for exploring themes of determination, courage, and discipline. You won’t find a better offering from this century than Ryan Coogler’s Creed. This fantastic film manages to respect the stories that came before it in the Rocky universe while contributing a freshness to the standard underdog story. Coogler’s direction is apparent and smart, especially during the thoroughly engaging boxing sequences. Coupled with powerful performances from the leads, Creed delivers far more than the satisfying knockout punch of the standard boxing flick.
Ayrton Senna navigated the racetracks of Formula One as Beethoven navigated the symphony. Born in São Paulo in 1960, Senna and his career racing Formula One is the subject of the Asif Kapadia documentary Senna. The film uses archival footage of Senna’s interviews, racing coverage (including on-car cameras), and voice-over interviews from his friends and family to document his ascent through the sport, culminating in multiple World Championships. The strength of Senna lay in its ability to transport the viewer into Ayrton’s head as we ride along with him at over 200 miles per hour. We feel his frustrations, experience his triumphs, and even see through his eyes during tense races. What emerges is a story exploring themes of the weight of immense ability and the inspiration that such ability can provide, all amid the backdrop of heart-stopping, tense racing action and political intrigue.